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4th April 2022

Unpeeling the truth about skincare

Recent beauty trends mean that spotless skin is sought more than ever. But at what cost?
Unpeeling the truth about skincare
Raphael Lovaski @Unsplash

By Liliana Newsam-Smith

You’ve woken up with a collection of new friends on your face – friends better known as spots. After a shopping trip, you’re hoping your excessive spending will pay off in the disappearance of these particularly painful pals you’ve acquired overnight. However, your spots might not be your biggest concern.

Many harmful chemicals can be hidden in these commercial skincare ranges, causing far worse problems than a couple of unwanted photo bombers. In this article, I’m going to ‘pop’ three of the worst ingredients that can be found in retail skincare and how they can impact your health.


Parabens can be found in a range of beauty and skincare products including moisturisers, face and skin cleansers, sunscreen, and makeup. The key problems with parabens are that they disrupt the endocrine system and can cause reproductive damage. They act like the hormone oestrogen in the body and can affect both male and female reproductive functioning and birth mortality rates.

The hormonal effect of parabens has been studied in animals where they observed that propyl-, -isopropyl and isobutylparabens disrupted hormone signals and harmed female reproductive development. In another study, male reproduction was also affected as exposure to butylparaben reduced sperm count and testosterone levels.

Studies on humans that took place at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health also linked decreased fertility with urinary polyparaben and butylparaben. This was indicated by shortened menstrual cycles and butylparaben levels in the mother’s urine and cord blood, which are associated with increased chances of pre-term birth and decreased birth weight.

Scientists also believe they may contribute to the risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer. Propylparaben can alter the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells.

Parabens also severely impact the environment. Low levels of butylparaben can kill coral and when combined with chlorinated tap water can produce a number of toxic chlorinated paraben byproducts.

Petroleum jelly

Petroleum jelly is a combination of mineral oils and waxes which form a semisolid substance. According to the Environmental Working Group, the substance is in one of every 14 cosmetic products.

Due to it being water repellent and water insoluble, it forms a barrier over your skin, which means moisture will be trapped beneath this barrier, hydrating your skin. Whilst this may give the illusion of hydration it also traps toxins, dirt and other contaminants under that barrier, in turn keeping moisture out. This can aggravate acne and rosacea, damaging the skin’s collagen and elastin, making the skin appear older.

In its purest form, petroleum jelly is supposedly a relatively safe substance. However, it can be contaminated with carcinogens such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons which US manufacturers are not legally required to remove.

Similarly to parabens, petroleum jelly is not an eco-friendly product as it is made from a non-renewable source.


Finally, fragrances are added to many cosmetic products, such as rose petal and sweet orange which appeal to consumers more than an unscented option. However, few people really understand their chemical makeup. These widely-unknown additives often contain endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, developmental toxins, neurotoxins, and more.

Fragrances also cause inflammation on a cellular level and are one of the leading causes of allergic contact dermatitis.

Now before you all diagnose yourself with anything, there are only small quantities of these chemicals in commercialised skincare. Is anyone else off to read the back of their skincare bottles?

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